“...so there is something different about this guy. He’s not your run of the mill deer hunter OK, he wants to get out there and kill this deer with a knife through the heart. Now that’s something unique. What is it with this guy? Is he just macho? What?”
The class waited, anticipating Hannah.
“I mean...” Hannah looked at Craig, “...if I was to give you a knife and tell you to go out and stab a deer in the heart with it and don’t come back until you do...” He opened his hands and looked around the room, smiling, “ ...I wouldn’t see your ass until you were 56 years old. You know--and crazy”
Everyone in the class burst into laughter, except Craig. He looked at the floor and tried to avoid any eye contact. He looked up with a smirk as the laughter began to diminish and thought, “No, you’re wrong old man, I could kill that deer. I’m not macho. I’m not anything you say. I will kill that deer. With just a knife.”
Craig had been in the class for weeks listening to stories his classmates had written. He was yet to write one. Hannah, the professor, mildly chastised him for this at every class and had even had him in the office to explain that he was going to have to write stories to pass the course: “This is a creative writing course, son. You understand don’t you? That means you have to write. Writers write. I assume that’s why you took the course. Is it? To learn to write better?”
Craig said, “Yeah, I guess.” But that wasn’t his feeling. He thought, I don’t write for you. I don’t write for anybody. I write for me. I write to express myself and show how I feel inside, what I’ve been through.
Craig hadn’t taken the course to learn to write better. He had taken the course to show everyone his brilliant writing about pain. He was going to write stories about his difficult upbringing. He sometimes rehearsed pivotal moments in his mind wherein his father, crying, would grip him by the shoulder and say, “Craig, I’m sorry, I had to leave your mother, but you—I never wanted to hurt you. Please, Craig...” And Craig would raise his arm and knock his father’s hand away and say, “Its too late Dad. It’s just too late” and then he would walk away. Craig sometimes murmured to himself as he drove, “Just walk away... just walk away” but he never put it on the page.
In the classroom, Hannah continued to discuss the story about the deer hunter,
“And this deer hunter, he’s got a sister, right?”
Anna, the author of the short piece, nodded her head, “The story is more about her than about her brother.”
Barry nodded along with Anna, “Right. Right. Why did you make her so hairy? It’s an inneresting quality to her, but I just want to know why. Why hairy?”
Anna shuffled her papers on her desk and said, “Well, I don’t know if—”
“I’ll tell you why. It’s an inneresting trait. It makes her different. Unique. Memorable. That’s why.” Hannah brought his hands together suddenly and the sound caused Craig to start in his desk. His mind was not in the classroom. He was in the woods, a great tension building in his chest. A new channel of thinking began to open in his brain.
He could see the deer in his mind and hear how it would shriek, like a lamb, but briefly. His attack would be swift and certain and would require that he know the animal, all of its habits and habitats. What did it eat? How did it smell, and did the scent change with the season and sex. There was much to prepare for. It was time to get started. Craig was excited.
“I want to see interesting characters, everybody does. Nobody wants to read a story about ordinary people just doing ordinary things, you know, like some old professor talking to the janitor unless, well, maybe the janitor is green, with two faces, you know, from another planet—and hemorrhaging badly...”
Craig thought, I’ll show you an interesting character, and suddenly threw his books into his pack, tossed his coat under his arm and rushed out of the room. Hannah and the class fell silent and watched him leave. They exchanged looks. Barry opened his hands and smiled. “I promise you, that doesn’t happen a lot.” He sat back in his chair for a moment and looked out the window. “So, this janitor, what if he was, not an alien, not hemorrhaging, he could be, oh, a recent transsexual who had just killed the janitor and had taken his clothes because he was so in love that he wanted to become him. I don’t know! You have to give people a reason to be inner’sted!”
Craig flew down the hall and out into the cold air. He walked quickly to his truck, threw his books in and sped off to Wal-Mart. On the road, the image of the deer hovered in front of the truck, in the lights.
Craig asked the attendant at the sports counter to open the knife display. He knew the one he wanted the moment he saw it, a fourteen-inch, razor sharp Bowie knife with a deep oak handle and a modest blade guard, a deer embossed on the pommel.
In the deep forest Craig learned to throw the knife and could hit a tree at fifteen feet, striking every time. It took some months to learn but he had begun to spend all of his time in the forest. He hadn’t been back to school since the day Barry Hannah had charged that he could not take down a deer with his bare hands and a knife.
Craig’s parents sent checks every month for a while. They never spoke to one another or to him but since the divorce they competed for Craig’s love, with money. He had seven grand in the bank. Even if the checks stopped coming, Craig thought, he had enough so that he could sit and wait in the forest for many more months, only staying his watch to go for supplies. There would be no way to fail; it would only take time.
The checks did stop coming, and eventually the searches. There were some close calls. Craig had once hid in his treetop shelter while lines of police and volunteers combed the forest floor. It had been very difficult to abate his desire to return home, especially the night he thought he heard his mother calling his name in the distance. Suddenly he saw himself in his PJ’s getting ready for bed in the warm house of his childhood. Ideas of comfort and safety began to flood his brain but he suppressed them, swallowed them like a large ice cube. They were after all, Craig thought, only ideas.
He would move further into the trees.
He learned to survive. The forest was rich with pecan trees and wild walnuts. Hannah hadn’t said he had to use the knife to kill rabbits and squirrels so he bought a .22 rifle and learned to use it. He lined his shelter with pelts.
Every now and then Craig would see a deer from the trees. His blood would freeze and his muscles would lock, ready to spring, but the deer would never come close, as if they were afraid, like they knew he was there but there was no way they could see him. It frustrated him for many months, until he realized that they could smell him and his hoard of dead animal skins. It must smell like blood in a den of wolves, Craig thought.
He stayed away from the shelter as much as possible, sleeping under a blanket of leaves when he could, when it was not too cold. He rubbed his armpits with evergreen branches and took care to notice the direction of the breeze. He kept his knife always in his hand. There could not be a lost opportunity. That would be madness.
Years passed. Thirty-one years.
His beard grew to his waist. His hair lay in mattes. His cloths had long worn away and his skin was grayish brown, the color of pecan sap on fallen leaves. He returned to his shelter only seasonally and only crept into it on the coldest of nights. The smell of his own humanity disgusted him.
His Bowie knife had lost its sheen, but was still razor sharp. Craig ran a chunk of flint over the edge every morning before the hunt. He hunted varmints for two days, and deer (which he had begun calling “the hannah”) for seven. The bullets ran out in the first year so he learned to build snares.
He had once killed a deer. In the winter. The meat lasted for weeks, but the beast had been caught in a snare and Craig knew that that was not the bargain. That was not the kill Hannah had challenged him with. Hannah would laugh and point to the woods and say, “I give you a knife and tell you to go out and stab a deer in the heart with it and don’t come back until you do.”
And one day it happened. Craig was sleeping under an evergreen on a cold morning just between winter and spring. His ears twitched at the sound of steps, and then a breath. He opened his eyes, and right before him stood a doe nosing the leaves for mast. He leapt immediately and threw his arm around her neck. The knife sank deep behind her shoulder. There was no cry. Craig leapt onto her back and the animal fell and was limp in seconds. No struggle. Craig jumped up from the carcass and jumped around in ecstatic circles, grunting. He let out a call which started up the birds from the trees, “HannaaaaaaaH!”
As Craig bound the feet together and formed a carryall out of sticks and vines he laughed excitedly to himself. Joy was an unfamiliar and welcome sensation.
A middle-aged couple driving a camper-top truck down a paved, country road saw a naked old man standing lost along the roadside, a dead deer at his feet. The woman looked at her partner and saw that he intended to stop.
“Oh, I don’t know Billy. I mean, way out here? What if he’s—“
“Well, shit, Judy, he’s butt necked and it’s freezing. I have to stop don’t I? Jesus!”
Billy stopped in front of Craig and got out.
“Hey ole guy, do you need help or something? Can I call—“
Craig said, “Hannah.”
“Do you mean Barry Hannah?”
Craig looked at his hands, “Barry?”
Billy looked back at his wife and shrugged his shoulders, “He knows Barry Hannah.”
“Hannah. Barry Hannah.” Craig looked at the deer and reached down and petted it on the shoulder. “Barry Hannah.”
“Look, are you related or something, is he your, uh, uncle or something?”
“OK look, I know where he lives if you want me to take you there, it isn’t far. Do you think he can help you?”
“Hannah. Barry Hannah.”
The couple allowed Craig to sit in the far back of the truck on top of his deer with the hatch open for the smell of both man and beast. There had been a moment of tension along the roadside when Craig produced the knife from behind the deer, but everything calmed down when he simply looked at it and threw it into the woods. When Billy climbed behind the wheel his wife pinched his arm and growled.
Thirty minutes later they pulled up a long, winding gravel driveway to a sizable country house, smoke billowing from the chimney. Judy refused to stay outside alone with Craig, so it was she who went up to the house to ask if Mr. Hannah could come out to the car. He came out sipping a white cup of coffee steaming in the cold, walking with a cane.
“So you say there’s someone out here says he knows me?”
“Yes sir.” Judy led him around to the back of the vehicle, “All he says is your name.”
Judy opened the tailgate and Barry walked to the opening. Craig said, “Hannah!” and began thumping the deer with his fists.
Barry took his coffee down from his lips, “My God son! What’ve you got there.”
Craig petted the deer from neck to rump, “Hannah!”
Barry Hannah looked through the truck at Billy, “How’d he kill this thing?”
“All he had was a knife.”
“And he’s butt naked. That’s something. Son, how did you kill this deer?”
Craig straightened up suddenly and became calm. His neck stiffened and his chin dug into his chest. He said, “If I was to give you a knife and tell you to go out and stab a deer in the heart with it and don’t come back until you do—I wouldn’t see your ass until you were 56 years old. You know—and crazy”
Barry chuckled, “Well ain’t that something. Do you have a name son?”
“Cr... cr... crai...” Craig scratched his head, “Craig!”
“I’ve known a lot of Craig’s, but there’s something about you. Reminds me of something. There was a kid jumped up and ran out of my writing class a while back. A long while back, almost never happens-- but that can’t be you, can it?”
Craig jumped up and down in a crouch in the back of the SUV, petting the deer with both hands, “Hannah! Hannah!”
Barry leaned his cane on his leg and put his hand to his chin, sipping his coffee, “Let’s see, that kid ran out and there was a story, this girl, what was it, loved her brother. Worshipped her brother, right? She was hairy. And, let’s see, he’d said this thing to her, made him different. Unique.” Barry picked up his cane and tapped it hard on the ground, “He wanted to kill a deer with a knife! That’s it! Well I just didn’t think you could...” Barry looked at Craig and the deer.
“Oh hell. Look there. You’ve done it!” Hannah’s face was wide open with a smile. “Where’s the knife?”
Billy said from the front seat, “He chucked it into the woods. We were getting a little nervous.”
“Yeah, I suppose, well that’s too bad—but hell, he’s done it all right... And he’s crazy!”
Judy coughed, “Sir, we got to be getting out to Momma’s. What should we do with—“
“Well bring him in the house, of course.”
Billy climbed out of the truck and came around to the back and lifted the very thin Craig out, “Are you sure. We came this far with him. We could just drive him up to—“
Barry had already started up the lane, “No no. Just bring him in. I can always abide an inneresting character.”